'Beyond Hope?' Hardly. Despite a very rough few months, Bob Price says the Interior will weather the storm.
It wasn’t so long ago that a sharp downturn in the B.C. forest industry would have left the overall Interior economy reeling. But that was then, and this is now.
“No, I absolutely don’t see the sky falling over the Interior,” says Brian Yu, Deputy Chief Economist of the Central 1 Credit Union, despite a spate of lumber mill closures and curtailments.
“We have noted a general up-shift from the impact of a growing population,” says Yu, who contends that economic activity has never been more diversified in regions surrounding Prince George, Kamloops, Kelowna and Cranbrook.
Pointing to new economic staples such as LNG, tourism, manufacturing, technology and post-secondary education, Yu is convinced that the Interior’s economic wellbeing is no longer subject to peaks and valleys.
“We are weathering a weak mining cycle, we are weathering the weaker forestry cycle,” he says confidently, predicting 2% employment growth for the Interior this year – despite hundreds of forest industry layoffs.
The cup is also half full for Clearwater mayor Merlin Blackwell, whose community is among the hardest hit in the current forest sector downturn.
Blackwell stresses that while the nearby Canfor sawmill in Vavenby has closed permanently, there is still a quiet confidence that new opportunities are just around the corner:
“Short term pain…but long-term positivity is what I think we are feeling here.”
While being careful not to downplay the plight of unemployed sawmill workers, the mayor says the area’s logging contractors may in fact be the most at risk with many facing $10,000 per month payments on logging trucks.
“There is some debt out there that would astound people,” laments Blackwell.
He hopes that many of the 172 workers let go when the Vavenby mill was shuttered won’t be without a regular paycheque for very long:
“These people have skills,” notes Blackwell, “if you are a pipefitter or [have] other specialized skills, you’ve probably already been offered a job,” referring to the TransMountain pipeline expansion project, which has expressed interest in hiring many of those laid off.
As for the future of British Columbia’s once-powerful forest sector, industry analyst, Russ Taylor is convinced we are witnessing a new normal as a result of tightening timber supplies, rising log costs, and weaker lumber prices.
While describing the recent headlines as “brutal,” Taylor contends that no one should be surprised by the current situation as forest companies have been forced to respond to ever-rising labour costs with plans to automate:
“Give your head a shake if you aren’t asking the right questions,” he argues, pointing out that lumber workers have been warned for the past several years that streamlining would be a painful reality. He also predicts at least nine more mill closures by 2025.
Asked whether the lumber business can avoid a future crisis, Taylor hesitates a moment before venturing one potential solution he has never publicly stated before:
“I’m a little leery to bring this up because the backlash is huge…but if you want to solve this problem related to wood supply, why not start to privatize some of B.C.’s timber?”
While admitting his concept probably has little chance of being embraced by government, he contends that private timberland owners generally take better care of the resource than the public sector.
“This is what you get when you put your trust in public timberland ownership. You get a real mess.”
So far in 2019, a staggering 62 sawmill curtailments have been announced along with 4 permanent closures in Fort St. James, Chasm, Vavenby and Quesnel. But as the saying goes, when doors close, windows often open. And thankfully, for many of the men and women who have lost their livelihoods, the difficult transition to a new career requiring new skills is taking place.
It’s not exactly a silver lining, but hopefully the sky over the Interior isn’t falling this time, but rather shifting.
Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.